On November 9, Vanessa Redgrave won a split decision in a suit she brought against the Boston Symphony Orchestra for canceling her performance as narrator of Oedipus Rex. On the one hand, a Federal jury awarded her $100,000 in damages for breach of contract; on the other, it rejected her claim that the orchestra had blacklisted her for political reasons, in violation of her civil rights.
Apparently, the jury bought the B.S.O.'s argument that it had canceled Redgrave not because of her political views but because the Jewish Defense League and anonymous individuals had threatened to disrupt the performance. Also, as one juror put it, the orchestra feared "losing financial support from the Jewish community."
But the jury's decision did not put the question of blacklisting to rest. Although no organized network of ideological vigilantes such as existed in the 1950s operates, today, the principle underlying the orchestra's decision is the same as the one that prevailed then--punishing a performer for her political actions, associations and statements.
Even the rationalization that commercial rather than political considerations were the motive for the action is not new. In 1951, when actress Gale Sondergaard, best known for her portrayal of Spider Woman, was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and asked the Screen Actors Guild for help, the union's president, Ronald Reagan replied:
If any actor by his own actions outside of union activities has so offended American public opinion that he has made himself unsalable at the box office, the Guild cannot and would not want to force any employer to hire him.
The notion that single-interest groups may deny controversial performers their rights to practice their craft, whether by goonish threats or by more subtle financial pressures, is repugnant to the First Amendment. Since the birth of the Republic, government officials have used the pretext of imminent civil disorder to deny unpopular figures permits to hold meetings or rallies. When a private organization adopts that rationale after telephone threats, as the B.S.O. did, there is even greater cause for alarm. If a security problem is anticipated, the police should be called and the performance should go on.
To be sure, Redgrave's views on the Palestinian question arouse strong political passions, especially among the organized Jewish community. But it is precisely in cases where emotions run deepest, where disagreements are strongest and where popular pressure is greatest that the words in the Bill of Rights become most imperative.
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|Title Annotation:||cancellation of Vanessa Redgrave's performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra|
|Date:||Nov 24, 1984|
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